Hariri’s ghost comes back to haunt Assad
Beirut - This past year, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, established by the United Nations to try those responsible for the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, has gone in an interesting direction. The outcome of the trial in The Hague could have dramatic consequences for Syria’s regime, which perhaps might explain the strange deaths of several Syrian officials in recent years.
The initial indictment, made public in January 2011 by Canadian prosecutor Daniel Bellemare, accused several Hezbollah members of involvement. While there was considerable suspicion of the party’s participation in Hariri’s killing, the indictment failed to offer a motive for why its members might have carried it out.
After Bellemare was replaced by Norman Farrell in March 2012, the new prosecutor was said to be particularly unhappy with the indictment. Bellemare’s indictment was built around technical analysis of mobile phones used by the group that allegedly surveyed Hariri for weeks before carrying out their plan.
The problem with Bellemare’s indictment was not that it had necessarily targeted an innocent party. The mobile phone data had initially been the focal point of an investigation led by a Lebanese police officer, Wissam Eid. The fact that he was assassinated in January 2008 suggested he was onto something.
In Beirut there was a strong feeling that Eid suspected Hezbollah’s role and expected that the party would try to eliminate him.
The real shortcoming of the Bellemare indictment is that it provided no context for Hariri’s assassination. His murder had been eminently political in its purpose and implications, a point recognised in several earlier reports by UN commissions charged with investigating the crime. Yet not a word of this came through in Bellemare’s indictment.
Bellemare was partly to blame but the real culprit was Serge Brammertz, the second commissioner of the UN investigating team. Brammertz had taken over at a key moment in the investigation, in January 2006, when the foundations had been laid by Detlev Mehlis, his German predecessor.
It was up to Brammertz to build on what Mehlis had discovered. To the German, Syria was deeply involved in the assassination, quite possibly because Hariri intended to challenge its allies in parliamentary elections scheduled for summer 2005. Expectations were that Hariri would win, threatening Syria’s hold on Lebanon as well as the military autonomy enjoyed by Hezbollah.
One of the things Mehlis had left to Brammertz was the arrest of Syria’s former military intelligence chief in Lebanon, Rustom Ghazaleh. Yet Brammertz not only did not arrest Ghazaleh, he did not arrest anyone. In report after bland report, he mentioned progress but never indicated he had discovered anything new.
In 2008, Brammertz left, having achieved very little. His appointment as prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia suggested to many he had been promoted for having avoided rocking the boat in Lebanon.
My own information confirmed his inertia, as did the conclusions of a Canadian documentary in 2010 that found that Brammertz had not seriously pursued vital telecommunications analysis.
This partly affected Bellemare’s indictment but the Canadian also merits blame for presenting so flawed an accusation. Farrell has sought to use witness testimony before the tribunal to uncover a motive. What emerged was a view among many of Hariri’s political allies on the stand that he had been killed to prevent him from winning a parliamentary majority.
On the basis of that testimony, a logical next step in Farrell’s strategy was to bring in Syrian officials to examine their side of the story, particularly Ghazaleh, who had played so central a role in Syria’s running of Lebanon. Syria has denied any part in the Hariri assassination.
Yet in March there were reports from Syria that Ghazaleh had been seriously beaten by bodyguards of another intelligence chief and was in hospital. Shortly thereafter his death was announced.
While Ghazaleh was said to have paid for opposing Iranian influence in Syria, it seemed more persuasive, if no less speculative, that his death was linked to the Hariri tribunal. Had he been called to The Hague as a witness, this would have created a dilemma for the Assad regime.
Had it refused to let him go, the Syrians would have looked guilty of concealing their involvement. Had it allowed him to go, Ghazaleh could have been arrested and made revelations about Syrian responsibility.
Nor is Ghazaleh the only individual with possible links to the Hariri murder to die. The Syrian intelligence officer responsible for Beirut in 2005, Jameh Jameh, was killed by a sniper in Deir ez- Zor. Some have speculated that Bashar Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, was killed in a 2012 Damascus bombing because of his knowledge of the Hariri plot, even if there were surely other reasons.
It is impossible to verify whether such allegations are true. However, it would be a mistake to assume Assad is indifferent to the tribunal’s outcome so steeped in blood is he today. An indictment of senior regime figures would affect his fate if he were obliged to leave Syria. Hariri’s death, against the tens of thousands of others for which Assad is responsible, could actually land him in prison.